In an effort to combat prostitution and human trafficking, Statewide Operation Trigger Point, a combined effort of the Florida Department of Health and local law enforcement, has resulted in 64 cease-and-desist notices served to unlicensed massage therapists and establishments throughout Florida since new fingerprinting and background check requirements went into effect a little over a year ago.
What massage therapists think
Despite its possible efficacy at shutting down more unlicensed establishments, therapists’ opinions about the background check law vary. For some, it raises issues of having to pay an additional fee, compromise privacy or satisfy another in an increasingly long and expensive list of licensure requirements.
For other Florida massage therapists, the new law is enhancing the professionalism and integrity of legitimate massage therapy.
“Doctors have to do this, and other health care professionals, so it makes sense for us to be required to have it done,” said Jennifer Alvarado, a licensed massage therapist, massage educator and owner of Renaissance Massage Studios in Lake Mary, Florida. “It’s designed to protect the public.”
Problems with prints
The process of filing fingerprints and background checks was not without its difficulties for some practitioners, especially with the submission deadline occurring during a year when licenses are up for renewal.
In addition to submitting background checks by Jan. 31, the deadline for massage license renewal is on Aug. 31. License renewal involves a $105 fee for licensees renewed by the deadline, plus completion of 24 hours of continuing education, including 12 hours of live classroom instruction, according to requirements posted by the Florida Board of Massage Therapy.
The fingerprinting and background checks cost approximately $80 per therapist, a fee which typically includes a free re-scan, within a 180-day window of time, if fingerprints are unreadable. In July, the Florida Department of Health notified a number of massage therapists that their fingerprints had been rejected—but the notification came too late for them to be re-scanned free of charge.
“The department recognizes that there are many individuals still lacking background screening clearance and the department is investigating possible solutions that may mitigate any additional costs to those impacted,” said Mara Burger, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health. “This situation will not impact a licensee’s ability to renew his or her license.”
An emailed statement the Florida Board of Massage Therapy gave the Florida State Massage Therapy Association (FSMTA), portions of which were published at fsmta.org/legislative-update on August 10, 2015, reads, in part:
“Please be advised that we have not finalized a solution regarding this issue. We are investigating ways to mitigate any additional undue hardship on the therapists and establishment owners [affected] by this unfortunate situation. Once we come up with a final solution, the [affected] individuals will be contacted with additional instructions.”
The statement also notes that the fingerprint issue will not affect massage therapist license renewal. Alex Spassoff, Board of Massage Therapy liaison for the FSMTA, told MASSAGE Magazine the board did not tell the association how many therapists have been affected, but estimated it is a relatively small number. (MASSAGE Magazine contacted the board and asked about this number, but has not received a response as of the time of this article’s publication.)
Spassoff also reiterated the board’s assertion that the issue would not impact renewals.
Other transition issues
This bump in the road is not the only problem the board has encountered since the new requirements went into effect. Given the scope of the task—to collect and process criminal background checks from all massage licensees in the state—many massage therapists aren’t surprised the transition has been less than smooth.
Ellie Sandler, massage therapist and owner of Well Kneaded Massage Therapy in Fort Myers, Florida, got fingerprinted shortly after the new rules took effect, but said the process became complicated because she works in multiple locations.
“[My fingerprints] went through, but I had some trouble. I have two offices; I’m a massage therapist and I have my own establishment and license, but I also work for a private country club that has their establishment license,” Sandler said. “I had trouble linking my name with that establishment.”
Spassoff heard from several FSMTA members who encountered similar issues, and also noted that establishments have generally been slower to comply than individuals. The background check is required of all licensed massage therapists as well as all owners of massage therapy establishments.
“A number of establishments didn’t comply,” Spassoff said. Some, he added, may not be operating legally; others, such as large corporations that own spas, for example, face the additional challenge of having to designate an establishment owner or director to be background screened, which could prove difficult when a company has multiple owners or a board of directors.
As of Aug. 19, Burger said, “approximately 40,000 massage therapists and massage therapy establishment owners have successfully complied with the new fingerprinting requirement.”
The most recent research by MASSAGE Magazine into the number of therapists in Florida, in May, indicated there were just under 40,000 therapists in the state, so it can be surmised that the majority of therapists in the state have complied with the requirement.
Problems from the past
For some massage therapists, the background check process went smoothly—but the results took them by surprise.
“It caught up a number of people who were not aware they had committed a felony,” Spassoff said of therapists who previously applied for licensure without disclosing criminal convictions they did not realize were felonies; DUI convictions, for example. “Some … happened 10, 15 years ago, before they ever even considered being massage therapists.”
Spassoff noted that such convictions are not necessarily a bar to licensure, but that a therapist in that situation should consult an attorney to handle the details. While individual situations differ, the therapist may be granted an opportunity to voluntarily relinquish his license, pay a fine and resubmit an amended application.
The future of Florida’s massage therapy law
The new Florida massage therapy law does not represent a perfect solution for the problem of human trafficking and prostitution under the guise of massage; someone with no criminal record could successfully pass a background check and still become involved in illegal activities after obtaining licensure. However, screening out people with known criminal activity could be a step in the right direction for Florida’s massage therapists.
“It helps curtail illegal activity,” said Leiah J. Carr, president of the FSMTA, “and [helps prevent] people with that intention [from] coming into the massage profession.”
About the Author
Allison Payne is associate editor of MASSAGE Magazine and managing editor of futureLMT.com, MASSAGE’s publication for student and beginning massage therapists. She has written several articles for MASSAGE, including “Massage for Cats Make Purr-fect Sense.”